In 2011, the North East’s shipbuilding
heritage was celebrated in a film
commissioned by Tyneside Cinema,
Songs From The Shipyards, a century
of archive film edited by filmmaker
Richard Fenwick and presented live with
a new musical score by The Unthanks.
Included in the film were some photographs
of mine, taken as a student, of shipbuilding
on the Tees at Haverton Hill in 1971.
In the 1950-60’s, to grow up as I did on
Teesside meant never being far from heavy
industry. Each day my school bus passed
Head Wrightson’s Bowesfield works, where
the steel foundry billowed smoke and flames
to the passing traffic. At the time they employed
over 6,000 people.
Every year, our Sunday School trip, by train
to Redcar, passed through what seemed like
miles of the steel works and blast furnaces
at Middlesbrough, Cargo Fleet, South Bank
These industries shaped our lives, our landscape,
our idea of what work was, gave us a living,
identity and pride.
The village of Haverton Hill as a subject for a
photography student, really chose itself. It was
near home and my brother Alan worked at the
shipyard and could get me access. Besides,
photographing a declining community was what
I thought photographers did. Built on the River
Tees as a model village to house workers from
the local shipyard and nearby chemical works,
Haverton Hill was mostly demolished by the
time I arrived in 1971, the residents re-housed
away from ever increasing pollution. But even
in its economic decline – pensioners collect
firewood from demolished houses and children
line up in gym class with holes in their knickers –
this was still a self-sufficient community, working
for its living, creating its own entertainment.
I found people glad to be photographed.
The decline of the village was not mirrored by
the work in the shipyard. In fact, shipbuilding
at Haverton Hill was still in its prime – Swan Hunter’s
had taken over the original Furness Yard and
built ten ships there, including the Tyne Bridge,
between 1970 and 1978.
In the late 1970’s, I moved to Tyneside and
photographed the 84/85 Miners’ Strike in the
Durham Coalfield, a strike called in opposition to
pit closures. The defeat of the mineworkers was
effectively the end of deep mining in the UK and
along with it the end of hundreds of proud and
self-reliant mining communities.
Only a couple of years later, the same agonies
were to be played out in shipbuilding
communitieson the Tyne. The glory days of
building massive ships, towering over houses and
streets; theirlaunch belonging to the whole community,
hearts bursting with pride, were soon to be over.
Men were sacked, gates locked, a whole way of
I took the last set of photographs in the summer of
2012 in Jarrow, Hebburn and Wallsend, places no
longer defined by work that sustains them. Once
thriving industrial centres, they now have a look
of quiet desperation, charity and pound shops
instead of vibrant economies. Even Newcastle’s
relative prosperity is circled by pawn and betting
shops. For these photographs, I returned to using
film after a decade of making photographs with a
digital camera. The discipline of a roll of film, and
the ‘wait to see results’, concentrates the mind.
I also worked more discreetly for these pictures
have little to celebrate.
Returning to Haverton Hill in 2012, it is difficult to
find familiar landmarks. The shipyard gates are still
there, but not The Wellington. No more Saturday
night singalongs.Like so many, a community rose
and fell in a couple of generations.
Most of the streets are now lost under scrubland
or industrial units, but the churchyard is still there,
the grass carefully mown – and we still remember
John Nicholson, foreman boilersmith, 1838-1901.
© keith pattison - photographer